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Best known for its use in fortified Portuguese wine, verdelho has been given a new lease on life in Australia. But despite its presence in a host of white blends and as a standalone variety, this unpretentious grape has forever found itself ignored and overlooked.
''With the first sip the palate is hit with a wealth of tropical flavours, including guava, paw paw and pineapple, but despite this flavour profile the wine tends more towards the dry end of the spectrum than the sweet''
Fresh, tropical and affordable - the verdelho sales pitch is an enticing one. A largely unsung grape that plays both supporting cast and starring role in many of Australia’s most popular white table wines, despite its unfailing presence it nevertheless continues to be overlooked.
So let’s make amends, shall we? It’s time to push this underrated wine firmly into the limelight.
Born of a little Portuguese island off the coast of Northern Africa, verdelho has been one of Portugal’s most prominent whites – generally in fortified form – for over 500 years. And its vibrant, fruity and modern character has proven the perfect match for our local palate, with Australia finding itself behind only Portugal and Spain in terms of verdelho production.
So enough with the anonymity. Let’s take a look at what verdelho is all about.
From Madeira, my dear
The home of verdelho is undoubtedly the island of Madeira, an autonomous Portuguese outpost off the coast of Morocco. Records show that the grape has been grown on the island since at least the 1400s, and before the European phylloxera plague of the late 19th century it was comfortably the most widely grown grape on the island.
Madeira’s location brought the wine to prominence during the 16th and 17th centuries. With ever more ships sailing west towards the Americas, thirsty sailors would stop in and stock up on Madeira wine before their voyages, the long-lasting fortifieds proving the perfect drop for the lengthy journeys.
Verdelho remains one of the four main types of Madeira wine, with the island continuing to export large quantities to this day. The Douro Valley, on the Portuguese mainland, is also a notable producer.
The most Australian of European wines
When the father of the Australian wine industry, James Busby, was selecting grape varieties to ship to New South Wales in the 1830s, verdelho seemed an obvious choice. The dry and warm Mediterranean climate of Madeira was as close a European match to Australia as there was, and Busby’s assumption turned out to be quite right.
Finding a home in Australia’s warmer winemaking regions, verdelho has been grown in Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland ever since. While originally used almost exclusively in fortified wines, through the 1960s and ’70s it began to be blended with the likes of semillon and sauvignon blanc to create that most ubiquitous of Australian table wines, classic dry white.
Now often bottled by itself, verdelho is celebrated for its affordability and drinkability, enjoying a reputation as the perfect wine for a warm summer’s day.
A fruit-forward crowd-pleaser
Verdelho is a notoriously fruit-forward wine, often being described as “tutti-frutti” on the bottle. Light to medium in weight – similar to a young chardonnay – verdelho has a decidedly oily texture. With the first sip the palate is hit with a wealth of tropical flavours, including guava, paw paw and pineapple, but despite this flavour profile the wine tends more towards the dry end of the spectrum than the sweet. Australian verdelhos are generally characterised by hints of honeysuckle and lime.
The ripeness of the grape plays a key role in the final taste of the wine. While fruit that is picked later will send those tropical notes into overdrive and bring a real intensity and presence, earlier picked verdelho is far finer featured and offers more citrus. No matter the journey to the bottle, all verdelhos are best enjoyed young.
The light and fruity nature of this wine sees it pair perfectly with Asian cuisine, particularly Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese. Fresh oysters and smoked poultry will also highlight the endearing qualities of good verdelho, although on a hot summer’s day a chilled glass needn’t be paired with anything more than a good book.
The best of the bunch
While Australian verdelho is grown from coast to coast, two states are generally recognised as the producers of the finest examples. Western Australia (in particular the Margaret River and Swan Valley regions) has a long and proud history of producing beautiful verdelhos, while New South Wales’ Hunter Valley pioneered the grape as a table wine in the 1950s.
Unlike Australia, the verdelhos of Portugal are almost exclusively fortified, so those looking for the genuine Madeira experience are wise to choose a bottle from Henriques & Henrique or Vinhos Barbieto.
- Since 1993, any Madeira wine labelled “verdelho” must contain at least 85% of the grape.
- At the turn of the 20th century verdelho was all but wiped out by the phylloxera plague, a disease from North America that destroyed over two-thirds of all European vineyards.
- The finest examples of Madeira Verdelho can remain perfectly drinkable for over a century.